The key to Hiawatha’s success says Lamb is that it’s a seven-day attraction, not just a commuter route, although Metro Transit boasts 40 percent of downtown commuters use transit. The commuter ridership drops off on the weekends, but the slack is picked up by shoppers using it to get to the Mall of America.
And the line has had the added effect of reinvigorating a part of the city that needed a boost. “Hiawatha Avenue has really been kind of a stagnant, no-development environment for 40 years as they were trying to rethink its role. It used to be an old mill road, so it used to have a lot of trucks going out there accessing the grain mills and that kind of thing,” says Lamb.
With the introduction of the light rail line, though, Hiawatha Avenue has seen an amazing turnaround. “The most optimistic projections were that in this 12-mile stretch you might have 7,000 new housing units,” says Lamb. “Well over the course the last few years, both that are already in place but also in the final planning stations, there are some 15,000 housing units that are in place or are in the final stages.”
Lamb notes that as with most new rail projects, there is skepticism before the first line goes in. “The train to nowhere it was called popularly around here.
“But then once they start to really see it is successful, that people are using it for a variety of purposes, that kind of thing, I think you get a lot more people that were previously agnostic on it that start to become true believers and the last few years the question is when can we get our line.
“And that’s obviously not feasible that every neighborhood has access to light rail in the near future or long distance or whatever. But it does kind of stimulate that full acceptance and recognition that our region can benefit by a well-designed and well-executed transit system.”
Metro Transit’s next light rail project will be the Central Corridor, which runs from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, connecting the Twin Cities. Better yet, it runs straight through the heart of the University of Minnesota campus.
“When you take a look at University Ave., [it] was a regional hub of activities and retail in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s,” says Lamb.
“Then as the freeway network started to build in, it started to suffer from a lack of renewed investment or whatever it is. And so I think the people who are thinking of the Central Corridor are seeing this as a great opportunity to redevelop that whole University Avenue corridor.”
Lamb says that he sees development quickly outpacing investment. “I think oftentimes in regions what happens is the first time you make the investment, development follows that investment, the second time it starts to come on a concurrent schedule and the third and later times it starts to anticipate the infrastructure development and that’s what we’re seeing already on University Avenue — higher density development and really transit-oriented development up and down that corridor.”
A new initiative for Metro Transit is its Hi-Frequency network. This new take on the average fixed-route service is based on the idea of getting people on the bus by getting them to stop worrying about schedules.
“You know the one thing that again is born out even with light rail was that what if you ask the average person waiting on the platform when the next train is coming, they don’t know, but they know it is coming along soon,” explains Lamb.
“And so that whole question of what it takes to get people to take transit — one of the things is they don’t have to wait, that they don’t have to memorize a schedule, that I control when I can go and when I can come back.
“And we’ve known for a while here locally and clearly it’s also proven out nationally is that the more you can take a frequency and apply it in an urban setting is that the more people will be tending to use it.
“And so what we did was to say you know we’ve got several routes that have a very good frequency. Some rival the light rail frequency during the rush hour — five to seven minutes,” he adds.